In spite of the fact that some of my family has always lives in Madras (as it was then called) and I have been visiting it regularly since childhood, the city has never grown on me. But I continue to visit regularly as both my mother and brother, live there. During a recent visit, I got away for a couple of days to Puducherry. This was not my first visit to the town, but the first time there as a pure tourist!!
Puducherry is mostly associated with the Ashram. But there is more to it than just that. The Chennai-Puducherry road connections, both via the inland NH 45 along which we went and the coastal East Coast Express along which we drove back are good. We stayed at the Hotel Maison Perumal a 10 room heritage property in the Tamil quarter of the old town.The town has a population of little less than 700,000 and most of it is like any other bustling, Indian town. However, the small strip along the sea-front, which is the old town, has a unique charm that has to be experienced.
There are the distinct French and Tamil parts of the town with their interesting street names, a reminder of its French heritage. Street names give you such a good feel for the history of a place! It is such a pity that we seem to be obsessed with changing them all across the country. While a large part of the traditional houses in the Tamil quarter have been replaced by modern construction, much of the French quarter retains its original charm. More recently, the value of heritage properties as hotels and shops is being realized and many such buildings are being renovated and preserved.
This part of the town has many attractive features – the tree lined streets, the
quaint boutiques and shops selling local pottery, clothes etc. and excellent bakeries and restaurants serving French or rather Indie-French cuisine. One of the real big attractions is the sea front, which is about 2 Km long. The traffic is restricted during the day and completely disallowed in the mornings and evenings. So it becomes a wide walking path and hundreds of people of all kinds can be seen taking their daily constitutional. And in the mornings, if you are early enough, you can witness the magnificent sunrise.
We also spent one morning driving to the temple at Chidambaram. It is a one of the most significant of the great temples built by the Cholas. It has enormous gopurams, visible from many kilometers away as you approach the town.
It is also a temple of great religious significance for Sivaites and the deity is the dancing Shiva, ‘Natraja’. We were at the temple on a Monday morning at Aarti time, and it was the special month of Kartik. The temple was crowded with devotees, most of them being women – married women praying for their husband and unmarried ones praying to get one! It is always amazing and somewhat humbling for me, to witness this kind of devotion!!
This trip was made only a week after the sojourn to Khajuraho. While the Khajuraho temples were built in the 10th and 11th centuries, the original structure at Chidambaram was built in the 2nd century with many additions and modifications over the following 7 to 8 centuries. The contrasts in their scale, style and detaining was striking! But, the most striking contrast was the sterile, tourist centric, UNESCO heritage site that was Khajuraho and the living, breathing centre of Hinduism that Chidambaram was, where daily puja probably has been conducted on every single day for the last 2000 years.
The diversity and magnificence of our culture is truly awesome and as an Indian, I always feel fortunate to be part of this great heritage.